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1 Work has always brought with it different forms of violence, but in recent years many studies have shown working conditions to be deteriorating. As work has become physically less difficult, causes of psychological distress have multiplied.

2 New forms of work organization and the problems they cause undoubtedly harm employees' mental health and, in spite of social law and legislation, employees feel the world of work has become less secure and that their own rights can be violated with impunity. There has been a general decline in people's sense of value and recognition, and relationships between individuals have broken down.

3 Understanding the sort of suffering that can occur in the workplace, and harassment in particular, is far more complex than simply grasping the causal relationship between a potentially destabilizing work situation and its consequences on people, or between a harasser and their victim. Other extra-professional variables must be taken into account, including the employee's personality, their family situation, and both their own social problems and changes in mentality across society more broadly. In a narcissistic society of images and appearances, preaching individualism as its supreme value, the nature of work relationships has changed; in an uncertain world, everyone must do what they can to survive professionally.

4 In the present article, I analyze the malaise present in today's workplace, relating it to the ways in which people and society as a whole have changed.

The Evolution of the Idea of Occupational Health

5 Under pressure from a new public awareness of these issues, the Social Modernization Act of January 17, 2002 introduced article L.122-49 to the French Labor Code, punishing harassment: "No employee shall be subjected to repeated acts of harassment having as their object or effect a deterioration of working conditions which may affect the employee's rights and dignity, impair their physical or mental health, or compromise their professional future." [2]

6 The crucial benefit of this law has been to recognize the pathogenic role of certain work situations in causing a number of mental health problems. Indeed, it represents the first time "mental health" has been mentioned in the French Labor Code.

7 Although some subsequent cases have disappointed workers who had hoped for a better hearing, and although some employers have been accused of harassment for quite harmless acts, this anti-harassment law represents an important step forward. Aggressors can now be punished, as can those in positions of responsibility who respond improperly, and victims now have a means of recourse. The pathogenic role of certain workplace situations has been recognized. But while the term "harassment" is increasingly widespread in the media and the workplace, for many employees it has become a catch-all expression to apply even to problems that do not fall under the clinical definition of harassment, but which instead express a more general malaise that must be analyzed. It is as if, by shedding light on harassment, other hidden troubles have been uncovered, which may now obscure genuine instances of harassment. The profound transformation of work organization and our new concern for competitiveness and economic efficiency have generated new mental and emotional problems. Harassment is only one element in this malaise. [3]

8 Following a number of workplace suicides, the Minister of Labor commissioned a report on psychosocial risks in the workplace. The report underscored the high levels of stress and unhappiness in French businesses, and the high cost this imposes on employees and employers.

9 The language of “psychosocial risks”—bringing together stress, harassment, burnout, relational problems, and violence—allows us to talk about concepts that are, on the surface, quite different, but that are not independent of each other, having the same organizational and psychosocial factors at their source. Among these workplace problems, however, only harassment can be punished by law. Other problems have no legal definition of their own and, consequently, are rarely acknowledged. Making a complaint about harassment thus serves as a way for employees to make themselves heard within the company, and to denounce a work environment that is causing them suffering. Labor courts have therefore been flooded with accusations of harassment since the law was introduced.

10 But the reaction of business leaders has been muted. The problem is that the manager who pays attention to psychosocial risks runs the danger of throwing the business's work organization as a whole into question. And so they too often wait for something to happen—a complaint, a suicide— before they do anything about it. Some companies, mainly larger ones who value their image or whose director of human resources is particularly concerned about employee welfare, have established prevention plans to help both managers and those suffering from problems at work. An investigation by Ifop for Malakoff-Médéric showed, however, that while 88% of human resources directors cite employee welfare as a major concern, more than half (55%) acknowledge not having put in place concrete measures to prevent harmful situations in the workplace. [4] The current aim is to encourage managers to see psychosocial risks as genuine business risks, and to ensure that they become part of the company's health and safety policy.

What are the Prerequisites for Harassment?

11 To understand the process of harassment, we must not only analyze serious cases that come to the company's attention—ones that lead to a formal complaint, for instance—but also less tangible incidents like verbal assaults and people's feelings, taking into account changes in our society. Long before it becomes a matter of stress or harassment in the workplace, we encounter smaller complaints, ones that might seem unimportant and that we might attribute too quickly to fragility on the part of the person affected.

12 The world of work has changed, becoming more service-based, organized around talents and social capital. As constraints have grown and as demands for communication, training, and constant adaptation have expanded and job security has diminished, employees sometimes find themselves in situations where they cannot cope. In France, a recent survey of 25,000 employees commissioned by the Ministry of Labor and Employment showed that one employee in six (17%) said they were subject to hostile behavior on the part of one or more persons at work. Among such behavior, employees were particularly concerned about "unfair criticism" of their work (8%) and about "derogatory remarks" targeted at them (6%). Such hostile behavior is more common in situations where employees find the work organization to be flawed, and where they feel they lack support from their colleagues and superiors. [5]

13 These situations can be a risk factor for employees' mental health. They must be examined, acknowledged, and prevented.

What Are the Most Frequent Complaints?

14 Management has become dehumanized in some larger companies. (This is somewhat less true in SMEs.) Managers follow codified procedures, use sophisticated metrics to evaluate performance, and neglect the human element. Communication is replaced by a range of tools, which employees often experience as tools of control: individual performance assessments, total quality, performance contracts, and so on.

15 Employees complain about a lack of communication and dialogue. We now have technological means—mobile phones, laptops, the internet—that should allow us to communicate better. But these new technologies are often seen as an "electronic leash": channels of communication are so saturated that there is no longer any place for real relationships. Requests to other offices for information were once an opportunity for people to talk. Such exchanges are now made through the Internet, the Intranet, or text message, using language that is impersonal or even threatening. Decision-making processes are increasingly centralized, making criticism and positive debate impossible. Many instances of harassment would not exist if word circulated about them, but managers, fearing damage to the company's image, too often prefer distorted means of communication, with all the abuses they lead to.

16 Workplace relationships have become increasingly harsh. Everyone, at all levels of the hierarchy, is worried about their job. Whether in the private or public sector, no one's professional future is guaranteed. It's every man for himself: colleagues are not so much comrades as rivals who know that if it comes to layoffs it is only those who seem most efficient who will keep their jobs. In addition to the fear of losing their jobs, employees worry about failing to meet their goals or performance targets.

17 These fears are so strong that individuals only look out for themselves. Distrust is general; many are willing to eliminate colleagues when they become rivals. In such a situation, it may be tempting to use underhanded methods to keep your head above water, using harmful tactics to raise oneself at the expense of others.

18 Individuals needs emotional ties in order to realize themselves. But they also need the regard of others. The most common complaint we hear from individuals is that they are not respected. However invested they are in their work, people do not feel recognized for what they do. Rather, they feel used. They do not feel trusted. They often speak in terms of devaluation and injustice. Companies may speak about human capital, but such grand language often counts for little in reality. The paternalism of old-fashioned entrepreneurs has been much criticized, but their employees at least felt themselves to exist in the eyes of the company. When a company chooses a style of work organization, not enough importance is placed on the individuality of the people employed.

19 At the same time, employees are expecting too much from their work. At a time in which many of life's certainties are being undermined, it can be tempting to try to define oneself by one's work. Employees hope that the richness that they cannot find elsewhere in life will come from professional success. This explains why many employees, once they reach a certain age, no longer want to continue working. "I'm tired," they say, "of having to adapt to changes in management methods, of being infantilized!"

20 It is not just that employees feel unrecognized at work. Many do not recognize themselves in the work they are made to do. A large number report that the hardest thing is not having the means to do quality work. Most victims of harassment are scrupulous people, heavily involved in their work, who have denounced others' bad professional practices.

21 In many companies, management focuses solely on production rather than managing human relations. There is more concern for managers' technical skills than their ability to lead subordinates. A company's work organization is too often developed in planning offices or consulting firms rather than among the individuals themselves. Issues of power between individuals too often take the place of work organization.

The Increasing Fragility of the Individual

22 The company is not the cause of all these problems. When a person finds themselves in trouble, in whatever form, it does not depend solely on their company's work organization, but on their own existing personality structures. Some are more vulnerable from the outset. For others, the feeling of losing their professional identity is a cause of vulnerability, one that may lead to decompensation. It is more and more common to encounter people who are extremely sensitive to remarks by the public or their superiors. The slightest remark provokes a hostile reaction. At a time when managerial discourse is built on promises of self-fulfillment, some workers are led to narcissistic fragility by the importance given to their own image, and this can lead them to collapse at the slightest criticism by a friend or superior. This hypersensitivity to social confrontations involving domination or denigration can lead them to misinterpret others' behavior as aggression, and to raise the charge of harassment too quickly. Attributing one's pain to another's unfair attitude is a way of protecting one's self-esteem when it has too often been undermined by poor working conditions. Individuals have become more vulnerable as they try to adapt to a harsher world, and as their own frustrating professional environment has made them more fragile.

23 At the same time, the workplace's influence on society has provoked a change in people and their pathologies. There are fewer and fewer neurotics obsessed with guilt, and many more narcissistic disorders and pathological personalities—depression, dependencies, and perversions. A significant increase in perverse behavior has accompanied this excessive sensitivity. It is the perverse individual's narcissistic fragility which prevents him/her from seeing others as subjects and sympathizing with their suffering. This is also what drives such individuals to assert themselves by harassing others or ruining their lives.

The Narcissistic Society: The Rise of Individualism and Loneliness

24 This increase in narcissistic pathologies is explained by the fact that such personalities are well-adapted to the modern world. These changes in the average individual reflect the mutations caused by company life and economic warfare, and are conditioned by the myth of the homo œconomicus, engaged in a "struggle for life" even at the expense of others.

25 Individualism is a primary characteristic of our time. Until the 1980s, individuals thought of themselves as members of a collective and knew that this collective would support them. Peer groups or trade unions would mediate in conflicts. Today, it's every man for himself. Relationships of cooperation and solidarity have been eroded, and relationships with institutions have lost their value. Common standards for what counts as good work have become less clear, and a sense of shared values has dissolved. The individual is at the center of the world, but they are alone there, a pawn in a multitude of others just like them. In a world where we are mere clones, everyone wants to be unique. But how does one stand out from the crowd at work? How can a person’s individuality be recognized when their leaders speak with a forked tongue, telling each individual to express their personality, but requiring their employees to fit into a mold?

26 Conflicts, too, are increasingly sidestepped. They no longer manifest themselves at a collective level, but rather at an individual one. Managers are sometimes compelled to disguise or deny conflicts, knowing that they will be evaluated positively when such problems are absent from their team. Conflicts are not recognized as such, largely because we want immediate solutions to everything. Solving a conflict requires effort to explain, to communicate, and above all to take steps to understand the other. If one refuses to engage with these conflicts, one does so above all by refusing otherness in the conviction that every other is just a potential enemy. Conflict becomes unthinkable, and so if a disagreement arises, this is simply thought of as a problem of communication or understanding.

27 Boundaries have also shifted. People are being asked to adapt, and even to overadapt. They must be able to rebound from failures, not questioning themselves and attributing responsibility for their mistakes to others. They must cast aside empathy and become aggressive enough to symbolically kill friends and enemies and lie to close a deal. In such a "game," those with a hypertrophied Self succeed better than others in imposing their will.

28 The degradation of work makes professional success less and less dependent on competence and far more on luck or opportunism. Hard work and good results are no longer enough. One must also make oneself visible, make oneself valued, expand one's network. Appearance and visibility count for more than results and efficiency. A large address book and a good network count for more than talent. In a world of appearances, what matters is not what we are, but what we show ourselves to be—not the distant consequences of our actions, but their immediate, apparent results. This is the main reason perversion has become widespread: there is a general tendency to treat others as tools to be discarded when they are no longer useful.

29 In addition to direct work pressures, there are much more subtle social pressures: one must be fit, happy, fulfilled, and high-achieving, because individuals are only valued for what they seem to be. This adds to the weight on their shoulders. They are afraid of "not managing it" or "not being up to it"; when they come to us, it is to request a pill that will allow them to get their work done. To be up to the job, you have to pretend, looking like you're winning, and mask your fatigue and frustration. Developing an adaptive "false self" leads people to lose touch with their true inner feelings and to live an existence without authenticity. The race to succeed creates lonely people who are vulnerable to depression. If we want to reduce absences related to mental health problems, we must accept the vulnerabilities of people who cannot be in top form at all times. We must always consider people holistically. Retaining those who are very good and discarding the others in the name of performance is a miscalculation. We must remember that the better we treat the more fragile members of the team, the more secure their managers' position is.

30 The consequence of these changes is that our societies are becoming increasingly unequal: on the one hand, there are those who play the performance game, the unsentimental ones who are able to conceal their feelings or to let nothing affect them; on the other are the oversensitive, overfragile ones, who are perpetually discarded.

What Can Be Done?

31 Psychosocial risks are an inescapable problem in occupational health. It is up to psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and specialists in workplace issues to convince business leaders to take concrete measures to monitor and prevent such dangers. There must be help for executives who find themselves responsible when one of their workers is seriously depressed, and even criminally responsible when complaints about harassment are raised. Steering between management by terror and demagogy, it can be difficult for them to establish a management style that is simply respectful of people.

32 Faced with unpleasant situations at work, some employees resign themselves, while others rebel or try to make the company work for them. All of this has a cost in terms of productivity. Most companies would willingly invest more in return for greater trust and recognition.

33 Employers have an obligation to protect their employees' health. The claiming that some employees are merely fragile does not hold: they are simply human, with all the fragility that naturally brings with it. The labor courts were right to view an employee's suicide attempt at his home, while suspended from his contract, as a workplace accident. The employee suffered from depression, and the judges thus expanded the concept of inexcusable misconduct on the part of the employer to cover mental health. [6] Some business leaders understood that it was in their interest to recognize these warning signals, and ask for help understanding such changes in people, but many companies are simply panicking. They must be helped to put in place concrete measures to monitor and prevent such problems—to anticipate them, rather than waiting for a disaster like a harassment complaint, a suicide attempt, or an actual suicide before reacting. It is not a matter of adding additional procedures, but rather of analyzing problems within the organization and improving managerial practices.


34 The changes people undergo in response to a changing society are irremediable and management must take it into account. If employers want to improve their employees' morale once more, they must reintroduce respect for the human element into their management practices. It is up to mental health professionals to help them understand people a little better. It is not a moral question but one of efficiency, even if efficiency and ethics coincide in the long term. Companies that favor direct pressure and management by fear sooner or later pay the price, through loss of motivation, absenteeism, and a decline in the company's reputation.


  • [1]
    Psychiatrist, 15, rue Racine, 75006 Paris <mf.hirigoyen @>
  • [2]
    "Harcèlement moral au travail." Loi de modernisation sociale (articles 168 à 180). Liaisons Sociales 8250, Législation sociale.
  • [3]
    Hirigoyen, Marie-France. Malaise dans le travail. Harcèlement moral, Démêler le vrai du faux. Paris: Syros, 2001.
  • [4]
    Investigation commissioned from Ifop by the social security firm Malakoff-Médéric, carried out in September 2007.
  • [5]
    "Enquête 'SUMER'." Première Synthèse 22.2 (May 2008). DARES. Ministère de l’Économie et de l'Emploi.
  • [6]
    Judgement by the Court of Cassation, February 22, 2007.

As work has become physically less difficult, causes of psychological distress have multiplied. Understanding the sort of suffering that can occur in the workplace, and harassment in particular, is far more complex than simply grasping the causal relationship between a potentially destabilizing work situation and its consequences on people, or between a harasser and their victim. Other extra-professional variables must be taken into account, including the employee's personality, their family situation, and both their own social problems and changes in mentality across society more broadly. In the present article, I analyze the malaise present in today's workplace, relating it to the ways in which people and society as a whole have changed.


  • Suffering at Work
  • Harassment
  • Narcissism
  • Individualism
  • Mental Health

Alors que le travail devient moins dur physiquement, les motifs de malaise et de souffrance psychique se multiplient. La compréhension des souffrances au travail en général et du harcèlement moral en particulier apparaît bien plus complexe qu’une simple relation causale entre une situation de travail potentiellement déstabilisante et ses conséquences sur les personnes, et encore moins entre un harceleur et une victime. D’autres variables extraprofessionnelles sont à prendre en considération dans cette relation, telles que le rôle de la personnalité du salarié, sa situation personnelle, ses problèmes sociaux mais aussi des changements de mentalité dans la société. Je me propose d’analyser le malaise actuel du monde du travail en lien avec les transformations des personnes et de la société tout entière.


  • souffrance au travail
  • harcèlement moral
  • narcissisme
  • individualisme
  • santé mentale

El sufrimiento en el trabajo y las patologías emergentes. Aunque el trabajo sea cada vez menos duro físicamente, los motivos de malestar y de sufrimiento psíquico están en aumento. La comprensión del sufrimiento en el trabajo en general y del acoso moral en particular parece mucho más compleja que una simple relación causal entre una situación de trabajo potencialmente desestabilizante y sus consecuencias sobre las personas, y aun menos entre un acosador y su víctima. En esta relación deben tomarse en cuenta otras variantes extra profesionales como el rol de la personalidad del trabajador, su situación personal, sus problemas sociales así como los cambios de mentalidad de la sociedad. El artículo analiza el malestar actual en el mundo del trabajo en relación con las transformaciones de las personas y de la sociedad.

Palabras claves

  • sufrimiento en el trabajo
  • acoso moral
  • narcisismo
  • individualismo
  • salud mental
Marie-France Hirigoyen [1]
  • [1]
    Psychiatrist, 15, rue Racine, 75006 Paris <mf.hirigoyen @>
Uploaded on on 06/11/2017
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